You can tell a lot about a show from its audience. At Saturday’s performance of
Francis is the more consistently impressive wordsmith, but Dolan has the show-stealing poem.
Fans of the London-based spoken word artist (and occasional chart-nudging rapper) will be on familiar turf here. Like Scroobius Pip, emcees Sage Francis and B Dolan are steeped in early hip-hop, treating it with an almost religious reverence – there’s even a poem here about Wu Tang Clan’s Old Dirty Bastard. Like Pip, these Rhode Islanders straddle the border between rap and spoken word; they’ve toured the country as rappers, but this is their first Fringe appearance and it’s solidly under the banner of poetry, albeit cut with the flavour of an underground rap-battle.
Francis and Dolan tout a kind of spoken word that’s always seemed a little alien on this side of the channel: self-deprecation is out, and earth-shattering epiphanies are in. The grandiosity is all too easy to criticise, and constantly pushing for that top gear can lend the lyrics a certain sameness: when Dolan tells us that “impossibilities are opening like wormholes” in one poem, it dampens the impact of his next poem’s reference to the “stardusted impossible infinity of a launch into infinite space.”
On paper, it’s all a bit OTT. In performance, however, it’s electric. Francis, a fierce and passionate communicator, had the audience hanging on his every word (although those words lost some of their impact when he segued into song). Frequently dark and unsettling, his hard-hitting verses are based around a raw emotional core. He’s not averse to humour, either: “Music is my only psychiatric drug,” begins one verse, before continuing with a Tom Waits leer, “and you’re a pill I’d like to slip under my tongue.”
Francis is the more consistently impressive wordsmith, but Dolan has the show-stealing poem. After a brief disappearance, he took the stage in an absurd stuntman’s costume (lovingly sewed for him by his grandmother) to deliver an elegy on Evil Knievel’s uneven life. Dolan finds room for nuance and contemplation amidst the bravado: “Somewhere between heaven and the landing ramp is the calculated risk.” Another poet would have undercut the subject with irony, but Dolan makes the case for Knievel as a hero for the present day. Just as Homer sang of the strengths and failings of Achilles, Dolan proves himself a modern-day myth maker, and gives the broken, elderly Knieval a tragic grandeur. It’s all delivered with such sincerity that it’s impossible to raise an eyebrow. “He was not a good man, but he was a great man.” A line you might have heard a hundred times before, but here it still brings a lump to your throat.